RAF Scampton from the air. [Pic: Harvey Milligan/Wikipedia Commons]
The RAF has made the correct decision to replace the plaque at RAF Scampton which marks the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog with a new one: one which does not use the dog’s name. It did this quietly, without any fanfare, but of course as soon as the news leaked out a furore ensued. As I write this, at lunchtime on Friday 17 July, the number of comments on the Daily Mail’s online report has exceeded 700, mostly disagreeing with the decision. And a poll on the Lincolnshire Live website asking “Were the RAF right to remove the name of Guy Gibson’s dog from its gravestone?” is running at 91% voting No.
The point that those suffering such apoplexy don’t seem to have noticed, however, is that things have changed. The changes may seem to have happened very quickly, in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in far-away Minnesota, but in reality the issue of racism has been under the surface but ignored for too long. We may have had different attitudes in the past, covering everything from the erection of city centre statues of philanthropists without questioning where their fortunes came from to the use of racial stereotypes in TV comedy programmes, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes are acceptable now.
So, suddenly, we have started to rethink. Four years ago, the influential US National Football League refused to allow players to “take a knee” at the beginning of a game to protest against racism and police violence. It changed its policy – just like that – with the league’s commissioner admitting that they were wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier”. And now, on this side of the Atlantic at every professional football match since the end of lockdown, there is a moving moment at kick off when all the players and officials take a knee.
It is in this context, I believe, that the decision to change the Scampton plaque was taken. The authorities have started listening. The name which was always offensive to black people is now recognised as such by the majority of the UK’s population. In the 1940s or 50s it was probably regarded by most people as being merely descriptive of the colour of a dog’s coat or a tin of shoe polish. That is not a justification for its continued use in the 2020s.
The decision may have been sudden, it may still be too quickly taken for some, but to my mind it is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to rethink how things are memorialised. We need to reappraise our historical narrative. I’m not saying that every statue should be pulled down or every plaque removed. However, there needs to be an evaluation of what each item represents and whether the item would be more appropriately consigned to a museum where the full story can be told.
There are signs that our institutions, from universities to the armed forces, have now begun this process and are now engaged in both listening and learning. And this is to be welcomed.
The change should start in the nation’s schools. One of the key writers pushing for an updated curriculum is the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the Black and British: A Forgotten History series on BBC TV. Since these programmes were aired, he says that his life has “become a constant impromptu focus group. I am stopped in the street by people who want to talk about the histories those documentaries explore. Most of those people are young, and a great many, but not all, are black or mixed race. This is the generation who have led the Black Lives Matter protests and they, quite rightly, expect more from their schools than I did from mine.” See this Guardian article.
Olusoga hopes that change is coming. I also like to believe that this is so. The small matter of the modification of a memorial plaque in Lincolnshire is a necessary step along the road.
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